Humanitarianism and Filming the Testimony of Trauma

Lecture | May 1 | 12-2 p.m. | 370 Dwinelle Hall

 Professor Meyda Yeğenoğlu, Visiting Scholar, Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, Duke University

 Department of Gender and Women's Studies

'Feminist Studies and Visual Media' Spring 2019 Gender and Women’s Studies Lecture series
Cosponsored by Media Studies and Center for Race and Gender
Organized and Moderated by Professor Minoo Moallem

“Auction of Souls: The Story of Aurora Mardiganian, the Christian Girl Who Survived the Great Massacres” is a film that claims to recount the “true narrative” of the life of Aurora Mardiganian, a young Armenian girl held in captivity by the Turks during the forced deportation of Armenians in Anatolia before the First World I. The scenario was based on the Mardiganian’s own narration of her experience. The film was screened in movie theaters in Britain and in the US. It was screened with the title Ravished Armenia in the US. The Hollywood producer W. N. Selig claimed to be retelling the story of Mardiganian’s suffering of a Christian victim’s story of deportation, rape, and eventual escape in realist detail. The film’s mission was claimed to be “a cinematographic reconstruction of the lives of the Armenians under Turkish rule.” Claims of authenticity gave the film its authority. Mardiganian starred in the lead role in the film. The film was cast as part of the humanitarian effort on behalf of Ottoman Christians. The emerging discourse of humanitarianism has already made the public familiar with tropes of Muslim barbarity against Christian minorities. The medium of the film made extensive use of these accepted narratives and promised the viewer “a vivid picture of almost unbelievable barbarism, persecution, and inhumanity such as the world has never before known.” Representing the film as a realist drama (with its portrayal of graphic violence and sexual content) aroused a huge debate in Britain whereas in the US there was little debate while it was used in the humanitarian campaign to raise fund for Armenian refuge relief. The difference between the British and Armenian reactions had to do with British imperial politics as they were concerned that the film can “needlessly inflame tensions between Christians and Muslims in the colonies and imperial unity would come under threat.”

Problematizing the prevalent discourse of humanitarianism of the period, I examine whether Mardignanias’s discourse has the status of fiction or testimony. Is it a non-literary account of “what happened” to an Armenian girl, hence has the status of a testimony, an autobiography or memoir, or does it have all the attributes of all these at the same time? Or does Mardiganian narrate an eye-witness account? Following Marc Nichanian’s and Primo Levi’s suggestion that neither an archive nor a witness of genocide exists, and the trace of genocide can only be found in the testimony of the survivors, I suggest that the truth vs falsity problematic is irrelevant to discuss the nature of Mardiganian’s narrative and emphasize the importance of literary modes of representations not because they provide evidence but a particular way of comprehending the trauma Armenians experienced. Event funded by Chau Hoi Shuen Foundation Fund in Gender and Women's Studies.

Bio: Meyda Yeğenoğlu is a visiting scholar at the Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke University. In the last three years, she has been a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Advanced Social Research, University of Tampere, Finland. Before her forced displacement from Turkey, she was a professor of Cultural Studies and Sociology at Bilgi University (2010-2016) Istanbul-Turkey and Middle East Technical University (1994-2010), Ankara-Turkey. She has held visiting appointments at Columbia University, Oberlin College, Rutgers University, New York University, University of Vienna and Oxford University.
She is the author of "Colonial Fantasies; Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism" (Cambridge University Press,1998) and "Islam, Migrancy and Hospitality in Europe" (Palgrave-Macmillan 2012). She has numerous essays published in various journals and edited volumes such as "Feminist Postcolonial Theory; Postcolonialism", "Feminism and Religious Discourse; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism"; "Postmodern Culture"; "Race and Ethnic Relations"; "Culture and Religion"; "Inscriptions; "Religion and Gender"; "Handbook of Contemporary Social and Political Theory; State, Religion and Secularization"; "Feminism and Hospitality". Currently, she is completing a book manuscript provisionally entitled "Mourning for Armenians: Testimony, Secrecy, and Islamization".

Event cosponsored by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Funding provided by the Chau Hoi Shuen Foundation Fund in Gender and Women's Studies